Chris de Burgh: Big in Beirut

In their darkest days of civil war, the people of Lebanon took comfort from Chris de Burgh. Now he's making music with a local star.
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The Independent Culture

The manager of Le Royal Hotel in Beirut is flustered. Fumbling for keys and dropping credit cards, he explains that his jitters are because there's a big star staying in the hotel whom he has just had the good fortune to meet. Who's that, then? "Chris de Burgh," he says, eyes shining. He is the latest person today to have been overwhelmed by the idea of encountering the Irish singer-songwriter on his home turf. The air hostesses on Middle East Airlines set aside their silver beverage salvers to have their photographs taken with him, the pilot is apparently a big fan, and even the passport controllers at Beirut airport offer huge smiles and handshakes. De Burgh takes the attention in his stride.

The next day, we're on the way to a radio station, where de Burgh will perform "Live for the Day", a song he has written for, and recorded with, a Lebanese starlet called Tina Yamout. He has a greatest hits album coming out and this track is the one piece of new material on it. This isn't the first time that 59-year-old de Burgh has collaborated with a Lebanese artist – he had a hit here eight years ago with "Lebanese Nights", a duet with a pop star called Elissa – and he was the first Western act to play here after the civil war. De Burgh will be appearing on Star Academy Lebanon, where he will belt out a track with Yamout. He'll also be signing autographs, kissing babies and meeting his legions of Lebanese fans, because here the guy is rock royalty.

The Lebanese civil war, in which 150,000 lives were lost, is the root cause of de Burgh's popularity. During the Eighties, when he was filling stadia with the romantic strains of his biggest hit "The Lady In Red" – more of which later – the people of Beirut were sheltering in bunkers, waiting for the all-clear. One of the ways of filling the long nights was by listening to music and it seems that de Burgh's songs were, to many, a way of taking their minds off the terrible situation. He learnt of his far-flung fans via an acquaintance, Sir Marc Cochrane, at the time the Irish consul to Lebanon. "I started getting reports that when the bombs were falling and people were going underground, they'd pick up radio stations or bring music in with them, and he told me, 'Your music is really popular'."

In terms of popularity, there's not much to match the success of Star Academy Lebanon, a pan-Arabic reality TV show that combines Big Brother with The X-Factor – and pulls in an audience of 60 million a week. The current series sees contestants from Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Kuwait and Iraq competing to be the best at singing, dancing and acting. For four months, the Star Academics are holed up in studios in Beirut, and it's in this hothouse environment that de Burgh first met 20-year-old Yamout, who is hoping their duet will see her career go global.

Already well-known across the Middle East, Yamout is perky and pretty with a perfect American accent and matching teeth. She says she is still "shocked and in awe" to be working with de Burgh. Had she heard of him before meeting him on TV? "Who hasn't heard of Chris?" I wonder if she is aware that in the UK he has a less than stellar reputation. "I don't know much about the UK but I think that there it's more of a 'cool' perspective. Our history keeps people feeling down so they need something to brighten up their day and that's what Chris does for Lebanon."

De Burgh seems an unlikely idol, even if he is sporting a black leather jacket and sunglasses when we meet. That's in part because the jacket is of the blouson variety and the shades are standard issue for dads of a certain vintage, while underneath the 5ft 6in singer is wearing a comfy jumper and sensible slacks. But then he's not exactly a byword for cutting-edge cool. In fact, it's fair to say that de Burgh's name is shorthand for schmaltz and he's regularly described in the press as a "cheesy rock legend" and a "heavy-eyebrowed balladeer" – the last of which is unfair as de Burgh has impeccably groomed eyebrows these days. He's also softly spoken, unfailingly polite and friendly.

Being smooth is all part of the job, and wooing the ladies – and gents – who buy his records has helped him to amass a fortune rumoured to be of £23m. Much of this has to be down to writing one of the best-known love songs of all time – "The Lady In Red". The 1986 hit was a No 1 in the UK, reached No 3 in the American charts and was, famously, one of Diana, Princess of Wales's favourites. When he turns up for today's radio interview, he's ambushed by the DJ and asked to sing a few bars. He sighs but sings it with good grace. So has the song he wrote more than two decades ago

been a golden goose or an albatross around his neck?

"I think that every songwriter would give their right arm to come up with a standard that is going to be played long after they're dead," he says. "I remember years ago hearing a top band talking about a song of theirs that was a monster hit and they were really dissing it, saying that they hoped they'd never have to play it again. I thought: 'That's not right. If people love a song, play it.' We're only doing this because the public have said that they like what we do."

He holds little truck with most of the bands on the current British music scene, saying that he doesn't feel part of the same industry. "I'm quite sure that some of these new young bucks would look at someone like me and say, 'God, what a boring old fart.' However, they'd give their right arms for the 45 million record sales and the worldwide recognition and, most important, a 34-year career."

Does he ever become frustrated about the way he is portrayed in the UK? "You get pigeonholed. It's a kind of safety device for people who don't really want to look any further outside of the box, but I'm actually impregnable as far as what people say about me. I don't give a toss," he says.

De Burgh's relationship with the press has been fraught over the years. In the mid-Nineties there was a tabloid exposé of his relationship with his children's babysitter – he has three children and his marriage to their mother, Diane, is "rock solid" – then when his daughter Rosanna won Miss World in 2003, there were suggestions in some quarters that his fame had somehow influenced the judges' decision. His response? To employ an excellent lawyer. "I never sued anybody until they started being rude about my daughter."

His plans for the next year include turning 60 – "I'm not mad about having a wild celebration, it's just a number" – and going to Iran for the first time. He has recorded a song with The Arian Band, an Iranian outfit who have invited him to perform in their country. "I've been to places as an initiator before. I'd been to South Africa during the Seventies, when it was definitely not kosher to go there. I felt that the best thing to do was to be a missionary and tell people what was going on in their own country because censorship was so dreadful," he says. "I don't think complete cutting off achieves anything, that's why I want to go to Iran. You're bringing a message from the outside world, you might change something. It's the idea of a vast number of mostly young people who are yearning for something and if you can give it to them, why not?"

The following evening, de Burgh is backstage preparing for his TV appearance and is strumming his guitar contemplatively. He's doing three songs – "Live for the Day" with Yamout; "One World", a cheesy-but-uplifting tune that sees de Burgh punching the air regularly, and "High on Emotion", which de Burgh describes as a stonking rock song but is a little nearer the middle of the road than that. He gets a huge cheer from the audience, especially when he greets the slinky hostess in halting Arabic. He comes backstage flushed with success and is accosted by a stunning Lebanese woman with a toddler. She asks if she can take a picture of him with her daughter. He poses and the mother is overjoyed. "When she grows up and sees that she had her picture taken with Chris de Burgh, she'll be so excited."

'Now and Then' is out now on Universal